A Golden Dome opportunity missed

A pall will hang over commencement at the University of Notre Dame this year — the pall of a great opportunity missed. Temporarily, one must hope.

Notre Dame’s new president, Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., got off to a brilliant start this past fall, with an inaugural address that located Notre Dame solidly within the ancient tradition of Catholic higher learning. Father Jenkins then led a pilgrimage to Rome, an act that embodied a key plank in the reformist platform announced in his inaugural address: to “think with the Church” means both to think and to think “with the Church.” Then, in April, things changed, dramatically and for the worse. After a campus wide debate, Father Jenkins announced that “the creative contextualization of a play like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ can bring certain perspectives on important issues into a constructive and fruitful dialogue with the Catholic tradition.” Therefore, Father Jenkins decreed, the V-Monologues could continue to be produced on campus.

It was difficult, bordering on impossible, not to read Father Jenkins’ decision as a surrender to the most corrosive forces eating away at the vitals of Catholic higher education.

That view is shared by numerous Notre Dame faculty, among whom Father Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., stands tall, literally, intellectually, and spiritually. In a public letter to his brother Holy Cross priest, Father Miscamble told Father Jenkins that “your decision is being portrayed as involving your ‘backing down,’” in part because of an untoward deference to “the convictions of certain senior Arts and Letters faculty that any restriction on this play would damage our academic ‘reputation’ — and especially among those ‘preferred peer schools’ whose regard we crave.” “Indeed,” Miscamble continued, “it is hard to understand [your decision] in any other terms.”

Then Father Miscamble got down to cases: “In your recent…statement you reveal a level of naivete about the process of a Catholic university engaging the broad culture that is striking and deeply harmful to our purpose as a Catholic university. We live at a time, as Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter pointed out some years ago, when the elite culture is programmed to trivialize religion. Further more, much of popular culture is deeply antithetical to religious conviction and practice. It offers a worldview completely at odds with any Catholic vision. It is a worldview from which none of us can be sequestered and, indeed, many of our students arrive here far more influenced by the reigning culture than by faith convictions.

“Amidst this larger context you are to permit the continued production and promotion of a play which, as our colleague Paolo Carozza rightly puts it, ‘seems to reduce the meaning and value of women’s lives to their sexual experiences and organs, reinforcing a perspective on the human person that is itself fundamentally a form of violence.’ Dialogue with this point of view is ridiculous. It should be contested and resisted at Notre Dame but never promoted. Notre Dame must hold to a higher view of the dignity of women and men. Might I ask that if this play does not meet your criteria of an ‘expression that is overt and insistent in its contempt for the values and sensibilities of the University,’ then what would?”

Father Miscamble ends by asking his brother priest to “go back to your best self and to your original instincts and position on this matter. Don’t embarrass those of us who want to work with you to build a great Catholic university. Lead us.”

Anyone who cares about the flagship university of Catholic higher education in America must pray that Father Miscamble’s plea is heard by Father Jenkins, a man who has shown courage in the past. The V-Monologues is trashy, pornographic nonsense, like a lot of other stuff available in the movies and on cable-TV. A great university can’t monitor what its students watch on TV or in theaters. But it can teach them about stupidity. The V-Monologues are stupid, and one of the things a great Catholic university ought to teach its students is to avoid the stupid. It can’t do that by the “creative contextualization” of stupidity.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.